L.A. Mounts Crackdown on Entrenched Bandit Taxis


Los Angeles has become one of the easiest places in the country to drive a taxi--illegally.

While tough licensing and franchising rules make it hard for newcomers to break into the business legally, lax enforcement has helped create a flourishing illicit business that operates openly, brazenly and, sometimes, dangerously.

City officials say this is the year they will begin to destroy the bandit taxi business. But they acknowledge that their efforts in the past have done little to keep unlicensed taxis off the streets. As a result, Los Angeles and its patchwork of neighboring cities are flooded with thousands of taxis, including entire outlaw fleets, that operate without transportation licenses and the background checks that go with them.


In some cases, they also operate without registration, insurance or even driver’s licenses.

That was the case Nov. 27 when the driver of an unlicensed, uninsured cab picked up three brothers and one of their dates and tried to slip around a Blue Line crossing gate in Compton. All six people in the cab--the four customers, the driver and his girlfriend--died when a train crushed the cab. The driver, police discovered, had had his driver’s license suspended for drunk driving, although an autopsy turned up no evidence that he had been drinking before the crash.

That incident served as a wake-up call, prompting the Los Angeles City Council and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to demand a crackdown. So far, though, it has not led to any major reforms, and bandit taxis operate with near impunity throughout much of Los Angeles and neighboring cities.

As of Jan. 1, investigators with the city’s Department of Transportation have the power to impound bandit taxis, which they couldn’t do before. The department hopes to use that tool, as well as other new tactics such as lawsuits against bandit companies, to finally put a dent in the bandit business. Investigators have also begun to work more nights.

But licensed drivers say the efforts are not enough.

“It’s going to take more staff, more money,” said Anthony Palmeri, a member of the board of both L.A. Taxi and Yellow Cab Co. He would like to see the LAPD take over enforcement.

Like most big cities, Los Angeles limits the number of taxi licenses. But it is the only large municipality that awards franchises to a limited number of companies--10 at the moment--based on the idea that larger firms offer better service. The city plans to put the taxi franchises up for competitive bid this year for the first time in more than 20 years.


To some transportation experts, the proliferation of bandits is a sign that cities are not licensing enough legitimate cabs.

Los Angeles licenses a maximum of 2,084 taxis; that figure will soon go up to 2,303. By comparison, there are 12,187 licensed taxis in New York and 6,300 in Chicago. Both cities have far more of a tradition of taxi travel, but even such cities as Dallas, Atlanta, Miami and San Diego have a higher proportion of taxis per capita than Los Angeles.

Ryan Snyder, a transportation planning consultant and occasional lobbyist for the taxi industry, wonders how the city came up with the figure of 2,303. “If there are a couple thousand illegal taxis out there, I’ll bet the market is bigger than that,” he said.

Most Angelenos don’t rely on taxis regularly. But there is a substantial market for them among the poor, who can’t afford cars; the elderly, who may not be able to drive anymore; and the drunk, who believe it is not worth the risk to drive under the influence.

Given the clandestine nature of their business, no one knows how many bandits there are. City investigators estimate that there are 1,500 to 1,900; taxi industry officials put the number as high as 4,000.

According to Snyder and others, the bandits serve parts of the city--especially poor neighborhoods with high crime rates--where legitimate cabbies are reluctant to go.


“Most drivers don’t want to come to a neighborhood where their life will be in danger,” said one driver, a Nigerian immigrant who gave his name as Abodun. “And that’s the case, really.”

Others insist that the bandits simply siphon off business that legitimate taxis could and would handle--and at a fraction of the cost, because the bandits don’t have to pay for licensing and, often, forgo the substantial cost of insurance.

“I’m not ready to concede that they’re filling a public need,” said Tom Drischler, the city’s new taxicab administrator. “They’re cherry-picking, and if they went away tomorrow, no one would miss them.”

There actually are two kinds of bandit taxis. Perhaps the greatest number are licensed cabs that operate in cities where they aren’t licensed--say, a Gardena taxi that picks up a passenger in Los Angeles. City officials don’t like the practice--each city claims it does a better job of licensing than anyone else--but they acknowledge that these drivers are not the gravest threat.

Of far more concern are the cabs that are licensed nowhere. All it takes to get into the bandit cab business is a used taxi and a cellular phone. Meters and two-way radios, often stolen from legitimate cabs, are optional.

Some bandits work alone, but many work for companies, operating under names such as “LA Best Taxi,” complete with radio dispatch centers and listings in the phone book. “It’s amazing,” said Babak Emadi, who owns 35 licensed taxis and is on the board of the city’s largest taxi company.


The extent of the problem was obvious one recent Saturday night as licensed driver Jim O’Malley piloted his cab through the streets of downtown Los Angeles.

“See right there, that cab doesn’t have a seal,” O’Malley said as he approached Staples Center on Olympic Boulevard. He pointed to a yellow taxi with no markings other than “taxi” and a telephone number painted on its side. Licensed taxis in Los Angeles are required to display a large seal depicting City Hall on the outside of their front doors.

“Look at this guy,” he yelled a couple of minutes later as another bandit cab sped past on Hill Street. “Rest assured, there’s probably more unlicensed than licensed taxis in this area.”

A casual inspection seemed to bear him out. In one two-minute period, five bandit taxis crossed the intersection of Olympic and Broadway. O’Malley, moonlighting from his day job as an actor and independent film producer, was driving the only licensed cab in sight.

Bandit drivers say they’re only trying to make a living, and complain that city governments--Los Angeles’ in particular--make it hard to get a license.

“I want a city license, but the city won’t give it to you, won’t give you the option to get one,” said one bandit, who gave a phony name of Alfredo Romero. He had parked his yellow taxi at a Superior Super Warehouse store at 73rd Street and Compton Avenue in Florence. Bandit cabs are common at supermarkets in South-Central Los Angeles and adjoining cities, where many residents are too poor to own cars and legitimate cabbies are reluctant to work.


Romero said he came from El Salvador 11 years ago and has a family to support. Driving a taxi pays better than most jobs available to him. Customers, he said, are grateful for his service. “The customers don’t want to see the business license,” he said. “They want a ride, you know?”

Many don’t know the difference between a bandit and a licensed taxi. “What license?” a young woman asked O’Malley, the licensed driver, when he tried to explain the difference between his cab and a bandit.

During daylight hours, bandit drivers run a small risk of getting caught. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation has 13 taxi inspectors, of whom four work on an anti-bandit patrol. The rest monitor licensed cabs.

With their turf sprawled across the city’s 464 square miles, the anti-bandit inspectors are spread thin. And they have rarely worked at night--a fact that is not lost on the illicit drivers, who are far more prevalent after dark. While the Los Angeles Police Department can enforce city taxi laws, it almost never does.

“Bandit taxis are not exactly at the top of their priority list,” said one of the cab inspectors, Robert Johnson.

He said the city’s anti-bandit unit cites about 300 people a year for driving unlicensed taxis. The maximum fine is $250--well worth the risk to most bandits, who can make that much money on a good Saturday.


Supporters of L.A.’s taxi franchise system say it has bred unusually well-run taxi companies, with newer cars, more courteous drivers and faster response times than in other large American cities.

Critics say it has led to a highly politicized environment in which taxi companies employ lobbyists and contribute to City Council candidates in hopes of keeping their franchises, and has contributed to the bandit problem by artificially holding down the number of licensed cabs.

“When there is a clandestine operation of any kind, it’s probably because the regular market isn’t doing its job,” said Peter Gordon, a USC economics professor who has studied the Los Angeles transportation market and takes a libertarian view.

He believes the city would best serve taxi riders if it opened up the market to everyone who could meet the basic licensing standards.

“I’m all in favor of regulations that enforce safety and all those things,” he said. But, he added, “to have charade enforcement is worse, perhaps, than having none. . . . It could be that we have the worst of all possible worlds.”